12 Months, 12 Games: March – Rise Of The Tomb Raider

I’ve set myself a personal challenge to complete one game a month in 2019, a mixture of larger studio published games and more independent titles to provide variety and avoid repetition. From one of the most well-known and praised titles to a more niche release, this year will provide me with the opportunity to enjoy a range of games within my collection and review them retrospectively. Enjoy the next 12 months.

Rise of The Tomb Raider (XBox 360)

Developer: Crystal Dynamic

Release Date: November 2015

Finished: March 2019

Released in 2015 by Crystal Dynamics this sequel to the 2013 reimagined Tomb Raider release was a cross generational title, a showcase release with arguably the best graphical presentation as the seventh generation of games consoles drew to a close, standing in stark contrast to the earlier releases such as Underworld, Anniversary and Legend all utilising the same hardware within, an amazing feat to achieve. With the studio celebrating its 25th anniversary and rightly, showcasing a number of its more renowned and prestigious titles we decided it was time to go back and finally bring this expedition to a close. As a title released during the generational transition there was a temptation to wait for its eventual release upon my chosen platform at that moment of time however given my position and the certain exclusivity periods imposed I decided with its timed release upon the Xbox 360 and the option to own both the titles on the one platform I opted to go for 7th Generation release and as a result own one of the stand out graphical games of that period simply for the fact objectively you could contrast the graphical prowess of Rise of The Tomb Raider to Perfect Dark Zero harnessing and utilising the same hardware architecture and marvel at the output the studio managed to achieve from technology over a decade old at that point in its life cycle. When we talk about Video Games as a valid artistic medium, whilst somewhat subjective I do believe you can highlight the difference in titles such as these using the same tools and marvel how they were able to achieve the visual aesthetic appearance and stability of the title in the same way two individuals can pick up a pencil and produce two very different results. One console, two very different results.

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Rise of the Tomb Raider begins a year after Lara’s journey of discovery on the island of Yamatai with the titular character clearly changed from her experiences and ordeals. Attempting to find direction and purpose she picks up the mantle of her father’s quest to find the Divine Source and so begins her journey beginning in Syria and traversing the Siberian terrain before its conclusion in the depths of Kitezh. In contrast to the more linear path of growth and discovery experienced in the 2013 title, there are echoes throughout that allude to Lara’s past and the impact it’s had on her character and life to date, for instance the trauma of both the absence and subsequent death of her father and how it affected her development. Equally, in contrast to the somewhat conflicting narrative of innocence lost to a fully formed action hero in the blink of an eye that was so profound in the first title, the character we meet and watch grow over the course of the adventure is a more rounded and developed individual that draws strength from the past both from memories of loss and happiness to accomplish her goals. I personally enjoyed some of the more personal beats and moments when the game veered somewhat towards the sentimental, a specific moment when you return to the gulag to rescue Jonah and stop to rest in a cave as the cold overwhelms you briefly and you seek shelter. The subsequent memory and effect on the psyche of the character was a nice touch and gave exposition that was brief but memorable in my motivation to push forward and rescue a supporting character that had been largely inconsequential during the course of this specific game. Whilst certain titles, on occasion do give the impression of a studio envious of the television freedom to showcase expanded narrative’s and attempt to showcase long drawn out video scenes, short impactful moments such as this where the action is reduced and you see the effect this journey is having on her do in my opinion work to make you care and feel for Lara.

If I were to find fault, despite my praise and championing these short impactful moments it would be perhaps from a title attempting to set its pace but suffering from a degree of repetition and regurgitation of similar environments and locations as you traverse a relatively confined area. This worked, to a greater extent in the first game which was purposefully set on an island location and as such the range of locations to see and experience was relatively small. In contrast the scope of Rise is larger with the world at Lara’s feet to explore, and whilst I’ll accept this is a subjective feeling it just felt somewhat restricted towards the end, in an entirely logical and rational fashion I’ll concede but for instance arriving in the valley by day, undertaking a raid sequence at dusk then infiltrating the same location again at night whilst visually contrasting just created a sense of overt familiarity. A similar feeling occurred in the gulag and work camps as you approach and experience this location from multiple locations and for various reasons throughout the course of the game.  It did well to change or challenge your expectations and certainly the use of the ‘Metroidvania’ mechanic of unlocking new sections having obtained equipment was an interesting dynamic but ultimately as a decision this was not required, thankfully and allowed progression to take place without the need to return to an earlier section of the game. Therein lies perhaps my main contention, as with the first game from a linear perspective there is no reason for Lara to return to the first environment of the game to unlock a hidden cave with equipment she obtains towards the end, yes for the completionist you can should you choose but from a story perspective there is no clear reason. And without the restriction of progression based on you returning and exploring a now accessible cave for instance it just came across as a studio attempting to please two different audiences without committing fully to one path or direction. I respect the mechanic I just found its inclusion somewhat baffling in a title that tells a relatively linear narrative

The environments of the game were for me a technical marvel and certainly some of the best of the last generation with contrasting hub locations from the snow swept Siberian peninsular and the former Soviet work camps and prisons to the more green and open valley environment. Not to mention the opening moments as you arrive in the sun swept sands of Syria to the renewed focus upon the games previous historical raison d’être of exploring the Tombs of the world around her. I always found these situations somewhat forced at times and whilst there is a certain, artificial nature to locating and exploring vast underground caverns containing hidden treasures and ability altering historical manuscripts certainly to an extent these issues were ratified and resolved by shifting the Temple mechanic onto unexpected environments and scenarios. Two of my personal favourites in this regard were the frozen ship in the caves requiring you to traverse and climb a galleon stuck in the ice to reach the top and open the manuscript, visually as a setting it looked remarkable, like a frozen relic from The Goonies and certainly not the somewhat repetitive cave based environment. Equally The Red Mine as you explore a disused uranium facility transposes the typical Tomb elements onto a fairly contemporary environment with enough challenge and difference to present a unique and interesting place to explore. In short, the Tombs I enjoyed most were those that weren’t traditional caves and caverns and actually used the environment to create an interesting challenge to be solved. The inclusion of ‘Lara Vision’ is a necessary handicap and inclusion so prevalent in open world games today, a tool that allows the user to progress with ease but one we’ve come to accept almost as a crutch now. Certainly it helps but there is something to be said for the challenge of the older games, arguably with a more linear environment your progress was usually limited by you skill with a joy pad as opposed to getting lost and frustrated. Batman and Spiderman, staples of their respective universes have a rationale for assisted vision, Lara doesn’t and as ever just comes across as a lack of confidence by the developer of its audience.

The supporting cast of characters were relatively fleshed out and developed, the designers actually giving very human motivations for the somewhat outlandish plot elements witnessed. Attempting to seek a cure for a terminal illness isn’t the most original of plot framing devices but certainly serves well in contrast to a cartoonish attempt to destroy the world for reasons unknown or a greater unknown threat in the shadows. I enjoyed the fact Konstantin, despite his initial entrance hinting at a man unrestrained and prone to gruesome acts of violence was, relatively methodical and characterised in his interactions with his sister and Lara to an extent. If you were so inclined and you had a relative with a terminal disease, resources permitting you may take it upon yourself to help her live by whatever means, it just added a layer of humanization that is somewhat lacking in characters such as Wesker in Resident Evil or The Joker in Batman who just want to watch the world burn. I have no qualms with taking a life of a villain in my gaming worlds but I do enjoy and to a degree respect titles that make me ponder if I could empathise with their decisions when the end credits appear. Lara’s supporting casts were in contrast somewhat restricted with Jonah coming across as somewhat of a bridge to the first title with the some form of resonance that was perhaps unfounded. I appreciate continuity, he served that purpose and the relationship dynamic is interesting to observe it just felt a little accelerated or forced given the majority of your experience is a solitary one, where are the roots of this relationship that see’s Lara abandon her quest for a time to go and rescue him at the expense of locating the Divine Source? Jacob was an interesting companion, I had presumed on his introduction he would betray Lara but enjoyed the revelation of the timeless guardian and liked his ending, it felt earned in its presentation not overtly simplistic or expected.

The music of the series shows consistency, having yet to experience the third title I can’t say whether this carries over but certainly it was nice hearing certain motifs although it does start to come across a little repetitive towards the end. As a game series that stripped away many of the elements of its predecessors I enjoyed the simple riff when I first heard it in 2013 but even before then I don’t recall a main theme or musical score that I would associate with the Tomb Raider franchise, despite its best intentions to emulate the visual appeal of the Silver Screen musically it misses perhaps that louder central theme of Lara to contrast the more subtle and morose tune that plays when Lara is reflective and contemplative. As my game experience was drawing to a conclusion and Lara was attempting to make her escape I will admit I had Basement Jaxx ‘Where’s Your Head At’ playing in the background given the connotation and connection to the Jolie movies of 2001 onwards. Thematically, different films and experiences entirely but whilst I do appreciate the more morose and bleak themes to a point arguably I would suggest there is also a need for some of the fun and energy to return. Lara was never a self flagellating individual previously and yet the game drives this narrative of holding a level of guilt and remorse that pushes her forward. What was enjoyable about the earlier games and captured to a degree in the earlier films was some of the more light-hearted moments, the fun and cheek of a rich English heroin similar in many ways to the rogue charm of Indiana Jones for example. One of my favourite film characters but should they ever decide to reimagine Indiana I would loath an attempt to reframe the relationship he had with his father for example and just wish this game series could effectively, lighten up and allow some of the fun to return. I appreciate the tone of the remorseful scenes, but let Lara have a bit of fun with a bombastic score as all hell breaks loose around her but she retains her sense of exploration with her plucky British attitude and personality.

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I enjoyed this game, one of the hesitations I experienced and felt before undertaking this challenge would be the frustration when I encountered the specific moment when I stopped previously. In my case it was the illusion of the open world game when I reached the lumber yards and having to explore this frozen wilderness to unlock the required ancient contraption that would allow me to progress. Thankfully, on this occasion I persevered realising that so-called barrier was less imposing than I first imagined and was able to conclude my adventure in relatively short order.  Thematically I had certain issues, the lack of fun, or specifically framing your character as a broken and damaged hero is somewhat common place today. I do have to admit there were a number of occasions when the game was stretching and pushing the Xbox to perform with the screen and audio freezing for moments at a time and a small amount of pop in, similar to the versions of Dragon Age Inquisition I played across the generational gap. But equally the story was more compelling and personal, the small beats and moments when the action stopped and Lara could pause and reflect on the absolute insanity of the situation felt grounded and relatable. Not for me personally but that as a person, surrounded by the death of a relative haunting her actions, the insanity of an immortal device so close you would need a moment to decompress. Given the mixed reception and reported controversy experienced in the third release I am curious to undertake the next chapter in this version of Lara’s quest in the near future but for now, I thoroughly enjoyed this game, not perfect but certainly a genuine effort to make an engaging and thoughtful game.

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